Shakeups expected in states with big energy stakes

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, November 3, 2014

Substantial shakeups are likely in gubernatorial races across the country tomorrow, and the outcomes could have significant impact on national energy policy for the next four years.

Voters in a whopping 36 states will choose governors when they head to the polls tomorrow, and candidates are running neck and neck in many of those races. About a dozen gubernatorial contests are considered tossups by experts keeping close tabs on the elections.

Neither party is expected to see sweeping gains or losses when it comes to overall gubernatorial seats, but some sitting Republican governors who rode in on the 2010 GOP wave are facing tough challenges. Meanwhile, some Democratic candidates in solid blue states are also in trouble, and those seats could also swap parties.

“Red is blue and blue is red,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report. “I think we’re going to walk away from governors’ races on election night feeling like the world has shifted a little bit.”

Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, said, “There’s an incredible number of close races, and there’s a lot of potential for a wide spectrum of outcomes. … You just have some wild, unique” races.

Environment and energy haven’t been the top campaign issues in many of those close races, but tomorrow’s elections will determine the executives in charge of making critical decisions at the state level, while Congress — regardless of which party takes the Senate — is expected to stay largely stagnant on major legislation for the duration of the Obama administration.

“If Congress isn’t doing much — or anything, depending on your point of view — then it’s the states that are putting major policy in place,” Duffy said. “So governors and their take on issues is important, at least in any individual state.”

Here’s a look at some of the close gubernatorial races with much at stake when it comes to environmental policy:

Alaska: Republican Gov. Sean Parnell is facing off against independent candidate Bill Walker, and recent polls show a close race. Parnell is a former ConocoPhillips Co. employee who was former GOP Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s lieutenant governor. Palin has criticized Parnell’s support of a 2013 overhaul of the state’s oil tax system, which cut the taxes energy companies pay on crude extracted from the North Slope, replacing Alaska’s progressive oil tax with a 35 percent flat tax (Greenwire, Oct. 23).

Walker, who serves as general counsel to the Alaska Gasline Port Authority and whose law firm focuses on oil and gas issues as well as municipal law, has emphasized increased oil and gas drilling in his bid for office, as well as streamlining the state’s permitting process (Greenwire, Oct. 9).

Florida: Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is a former Republican running as a Democrat in hopes of unseating GOP Gov. Rick Scott in one of the most contentious races in the country this cycle. The candidates have been nearly tied in recent polls, and it’s one of the races on which billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, has spent cash, to try to defeat Scott.

Crist has ripped into Scott’s uncertainty about climate change; the sitting governor has repeatedly expressed doubt about humans’ role in climate change, deflecting questions on the issue by saying he’s not a scientist. Crist, on the other hand, insists that “climate change is real” and has called Florida “ground zero” on the issue. Scott has defended his environmental policies, saying his administration funneled cash into flood mitigation programs, increased funding for reinforcing beaches and settled a long-standing legal battle over the Everglades cleanup (Greenwire, Oct. 13).

Maine: Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud and sitting GOP Gov. Paul LePage have been close in the polls, with independent Eliot Cutler taking a sizable bite of votes with about 16 percent. LePage’s environmental record has been assailed from the left; he opposed efforts to boost solar and wind energy and has been quoted calling climate change a “scam.” Steyer’s group has been working in Maine to unseat LePage by boosting Michaud (Greenwire, Sept. 24).

Cutler has painted himself as the true environmentalist in the race, knocking some of Michaud’s past votes on environmental issues. But green groups are largely backing Michaud, and some see Cutler as a spoiler in the race. Cutler last week essentially admitted defeat and urged Mainers to “vote their consciences.” His comments and last-minute support from President Obama and other Democrats could help tip the scale’s in Michaud’s favor (Greenwire, Oct. 30).

Michigan: Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has had a slight edge in recent polls over his challenger, Democrat Mark Schauer, according to a roundup by Real Clear Politics.

Snyder embraces the ongoing shift away from coal in the power sector and says he is concerned about the safety of decades-old pipelines carrying crude under the Great Lakes. Greens in the state are trying to oust the Republican incumbent after the Michigan League of Conservation Voters endorsed him in his 2010 primary. Schauer, a former Michigan LCV board member, won the group’s endorsement this year (Greenwire, Oct. 28).

Pennsylvania: Democratic businessman Tom Wolf appears poised to unseat GOP Gov. Tom Corbett. A series of recent polls put Wolf ahead by an average of nearly 11 points, according to Real Clear Politics.

A Wolf victory could mean big changes for the drilling industry in the Keystone State. Wolf supports a 5 percent severance tax, which would be tied to the amount of gas extracted, rather than the current “impact fee” Pennsylvania charges whenever companies break ground on a new well. Corbett and other proponents of the impact fee argue that it will help keep Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry booming, but Wolf said a severance tax won’t burden companies and could bring in billions of dollars for the state in coming years (Greenwire, Sept. 23).

Wisconsin: In the Badger State, Democrat Mary Burke is posing a threat to Republican Gov. Scott Walker, although a Marquette University Law School poll last week found Walker up by 7 points. Walker — who once supported a bill that would have scrapped Wisconsin’s recycling law — has drawn ire from state environmentalists.

On the campaign trail this year, Walker urged investment in areas like “clean water, clean energy, biotech, sciences,” but that wasn’t enough to woo greens. Burke, a former bicycle company executive, has been quieter on environmental issues but has won the backing of green groups. She has said government should address the impacts of climate change, while Walker has said humans are not driving global warming (Greenwire, Oct. 24).